UNIVERSITY PARK — Whenever Bill O’Brien gathers his offensive players around for an X’s and O’s session, John Butler makes it a point to lean in for an earful.
As O’Brien lays out an offensive plan of attack, Butler goes still, his chin drops and his fierce blue eyes zero in on O’Brien. As O’Brien grows more animated, Butler’s mind is racing, pouring over every little detail of the offensive technique being diagrammed by Penn State’s head coach.
"How do I stop what they’re doing? Because if he’s doing it, somebody else is going to be doing it in a couple weeks or maybe in a year. I’ve got to be prepared for that."
"When you work your way up through a corporation, you want to work in a corporation where they’re like think tanks and you can learn a ton and every day you’re being challenged," Butler said. "I think it’s very similar working for coach O’Brien. He’s known as one of the best offensive coaches in football, pro or college. So competing against him, I always tell our (defensive) guys, when he talks to the team about situations, write it down because you’re listening to one of the best coaches out there."
Learning moments like these during the team’s practices are the only times you’ll see Butler quiet on a football field. The first-year defensive coordinator is not hard to spot on game day.
Look for the guy in the ballcap jumping up and down. He’ll be the one nearly 10 yards out onto the field every now and then.
If a play goes well, Butler’s is one of the first faces to meet his players as they come off the field. High fives and fist bumps, body bumps and helmet slaps — they’re all in Butler’s arsenal of ‘helluva play’ gestures. If a play is executed poorly, his disdain is noticeable. He’ll flail his arms and pull a player aside.
A questionable flag has the ability to turn Butler into a rabid hound stalking the sideline.
Sophomore Jordan Lucas, who has worked closely with Butler the past two seasons as a cornerback, has noticed an oddity — Butler doesn’t drink a lot of coffee. Butler’s intensity levels are all-natural, Lucas said.
They’re also infectious.
"He’s a high-intensity guy. He’s wired 24 hours, seven days out of the week," sophomore cornerback Trevor Williams said. "He takes pride in his coaching and that helps us take pride in what we do as far as playing on the field and listening to him and trusting him."
Butler said he’s never given much though to the way his personality rubs off on his players. His fiery persona has always been there, he said.
"I don’t think much about how I project myself in any way. I just think that’s how I am. That’s kind of how I was raised and the experiences I was raised with growing up," Butler said. "I think it’s inside of me. But I think that it goes back to me knowing that every day if I’m not on my game, I’m competing against, not only in our building, but some of the best offensive coaches out there, the Ohio States, the Michigans and Syracuse coming up. Some great coaching staffs that I have to be prepared for."
So far, Butler has earned his players’ trust despite being in his first year running the defense.
He joined O’Brien’s staff as the secondary coach, where he toiled with a limited number of players in the defensive backfield. Penn State was notably short on experienced defensive backs last season and made running a nickel defense — with five defensive backs on the field at once — difficult. So Butler and then-defensive coordinator Ted Roof improvised to a degree.
They used a third-down package that utilized linebacker Mike Hull as a nickelback hybrid and Adrian Amos moving from corner to safety. Roof always said the hallmark of his defense was that it relied on multiple personnel groupings and different blitz packages.
When Roof left to take the defensive coordinator job at Georgie Tech in January, O’Brien promoted Butler immediately. Instead of revamping everything, Butler just added to Roof’s program.
Now, it’s Butler’s mission to improve a Penn State team that ranked 29th overall last season in total defense. He thinks he has the pieces to get that done.
He’s got Lucas and Williams at his disposal now, the latter switched to corner after playing wide receiver as a true freshman — part of Butler’s decision to make the roster "as efficient as possible." Amos, a junior, is back and will primarily play safety while senior Malcolm Willis and junior Ryan Keiser will play safety, too. Senior Stephen
Obeng-Agyapong is back after playing safety last season and will return at that spot and play some linebacker. Obeng-Agyapong said he and Amos have both gotten looks at the nickelback spot while Obeng-Agyapong has also played linebacker to help with depth there.
Senior Glenn Carson and junior Mike Hull are the two linebackers with in-game experience while redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman will look to break out alongside them. Butler will rely on a rotation of about "eight or nine" defensive linemen to get the job up front, including vaunted sophomore pass rusher Deion Barnes and physical senior tackle DaQuan Jones.
Da’Quan Davis is back after seeing time at corner as a true freshman and will provide depth as will fellow corners Anthony Smith and Jordan Smith. Junior Jesse Della Valle gives Penn State another experienced safety.
Although this is his first shot at running a defense, Butler is no stranger to organizing and directing different player groupings. The Pennsylvania native has spent numerous stints running special teams for different teams over the past 19 years.
Butler was a special teams coordinator with Texas State, Harvard, Minnesota and South Carolina before running the special teams last season at Penn State.
He insists he’s more of a facilitator than a director. Butler carefully coordinates with all of the defensive assistants — defensive line coach Larry Johnson, linebackers guru Ron Vanderlinden and safeties coach Anthony Midget — to plan each week’s mode of attack.
"We work collectively," Butler said. "But obviously it’s a bigger role and one that kind of requires me to reach my tentacles out to multiple players and multiple coaches ... One of the things that I think is invaluable with that is my longtime experience coaching on special teams."
But experience goes deeper than just games played.
Hours of film study and position meetings count, too.
All of the returning defensive players have a better grasp of the team’s schemes now in what Butler describes as the "fourth semester" of defensive football. Butler adopted this teaching philosophy along with the rest of the staff when they started in January 2012. Then, in an effort to ease the players’ transition to a new coaching staff, Roof and his assistants treated each football period as if it were a semester on the academic calendar.
The 2012 spring practice regimen was the first semester with the second being last season.
"I just think he’s doing a great job on teaching the defense overall," Hull said. "He’s been a great coach. He breaks it down for us. Each semester he kind of adds a little bit more. It allows us to understand the defense and make plays so we don’t have to think out there."
When Hull entered the third semester, this past spring’s slate of practices, he felt comfortable enough with most of the defensive checks and calls that he and Carson did more mentoring of younger players. Now the fourth semester is in its first few weeks and Butler has noticed a difference.
"They’re going from understanding our defense to really now getting a feel for the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses where we might attack," Butler said.
"They’re not really worried about what my job is anymore. They’re really now focused on how they can do their jobs better and how they can protect some of the weaknesses in each call."
It has provided Butler with a degree of personal satisfaction in his professional competition with O’Brien, who has said throughout the spring and training camp sessions that the defense is ahead of the offense. Some of that is natural, he admitted, as offense typically takes longer to grasp and the team is working with new quarterbacks.
But Butler will take it. It’s his job to push O’Brien’s offense to the brink.
"I think it just comes natural. I’m very competitive, he’s very competitive," Butler said. "But I also understand he’s the head coach and I’m going to push the envelope to the point where I can get a read when enough’s enough. At the end of the day, he wants a tough, physical, competitive defense and I’m going up against his offense every day."
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson